One of the greatest Westerns of the 1950s has very little action, a hero who's admittedly afraid, and townspeople too chicken to defend themselves. In other words, High Noon wasn't exactly prototypical of the genre. Deviating from the formula may have contributed to its success, but so did Gary Cooper's humane leading performance, Fred Zinnemann's tight direction, and Carl Foreman's tense screenplay.
1. ITS ORIGINS ARE DEBATED.
It sounds straightforward enough: High Noon was written by Carl Foreman, based on a story by John W. Cunningham called "The Tin Star." But according to Foreman, it wasn't that simple. In a letter to The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, Foreman said he came up with the idea himself and wrote a four-page plot outline, then discovered (thanks to a friend passing it along) that it bore some similarities to "The Tin Star." To avoid any problems, he bought the film rights to the short story, hence the official "based on" credit. All of this became an issue later, when Foreman accused producer Stanley Kramer of taking too much credit away from him as the originator, to which Kramer's rebuttal was basically, "What are you talking about? You adapted someone else's story."
2. IT HAD SUBTEXT AS A LIBERAL RESPONSE TO THE "RED SCARE" ... BUT IT CAN BE INTERPRETED THE OPPOSITE WAY.
While he was writing the film, Foreman was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify about Communists in Hollywood. Foreman had been one, but not for several years, and he refused to name names. He was bound for blacklisting, and High Noon producer Stanley Kramer actually tried to have him removed from the film. (He was saved by director Fred Zinnemann and star Gary Cooper, who was conservative but didn't like HUAC's tactics.) He came to view the story—about a principled man surrounded by cowards who does what's right even when he's personally threatened—as a parable about himself and the other blacklisted writers. On the other hand, fans of Senator Joseph McCarthy saw him as the Gary Cooper character, Will Kane. "Kane's unpopularity for choosing to fight rather than abide [his town's] do-nothing policy is akin to McCarthy's self-image of a crusader risking 'smear and abuse' from those upset by his forthright approach," wrote one film historian.
3. THE DIRECTOR DIDN'T SEE IT AS BEING POLITICAL AT ALL.
Fred Zinnemann wrote that, with all due respect to Foreman, calling the film an allegory for McCarthyism was "a narrow point of view. First of all I saw it simply as a great movie yarn, full of enormously interesting people. I vaguely sensed deeper meanings in it; but only later did it dawn on me that this was not a regular Western myth ... To me it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience.” He later told an interviewer that for him, the politics "were non-existent."
4. IT'S (BASICALLY) IN REAL TIME, BUT THE TERM "REAL TIME" DIDN'T EXIST YET.
Foreman wrote that he was interested "in telling a motion picture story in the exact time required for the events of the story itself." Today we call that "real time," but according to Webster's, the term wasn't coined till 1953. (By the way, the movie is 84 minutes long but covers about 100 minutes of time. The many clocks we see on the walls must move a little bit faster than real ones do.)
5. THE TRAIN ALMOST RAN THE DIRECTOR OVER.
As the train pulls in to the station, you can see black smoke coming from it, a sign that the brakes were failing. But Zinnemann and his cameraman didn't know that's what it meant, and barely got out of the way in time. In fact, the tripod caught on the track and fell over, breaking the camera, but the film survived.
6. THEY SHOT SOME OF IT IN COLOR, THEN CHANGED THEIR MINDS.
While a lot of movies were being made in color by 1952, the majority were still in black-and-white. Zinnemann tried color on High Noon but didn't like the way it looked after the first few scenes. Producer Kramer agreed, and they started over again in black-and-white. As it turned out, in black-and-white, the smoggy skies of L.A. appear stark white, providing a nice contrast to Will Kane's black clothes.
7. RIO BRAVO WAS MADE IN RESPONSE TO IT.
Among the Hollywood types who hated High Noon were John Wayne (he called it "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life") and Howard Hawks, director of classics like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep. Hawks and Wayne teamed up for Rio Bravo, a similar story to High Noon, but one where the sheriff never shows fear or self-doubt. Hawks said, "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon ... I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western." Sick burn, Hawks.
8. ONE OF ITS ACADEMY AWARDS WAS ACCEPTED BY ONE OF ITS HARSHEST CRITICS.
Best Actor nominee Gary Cooper was shooting a film (Blowing Wild) in Mexico and couldn't attend the Oscars, so he asked his friend John Wayne to accept it on his behalf if he should happen to win. John Wayne was a driving force in Hollywood's anti-Communist movement who later said he was proud to have helped get Foreman blacklisted. He was, to put it mildly and as previously noted, not a fan of High Noon. Nonetheless, when Cooper won, Wayne did the gentlemanly thing: spoke glowingly of his friend "Coop" as a person, and jokingly pretended to be resentful that he hadn't played the lead in High Noon himself.
9. THE PAINED LOOK ON GARY COOPER'S FACE DIDN'T REQUIRE MUCH ACTING.
The veteran actor was 51 when the film was shot, and he looked every bit of it (and then some). Stomach ulcers and back problems plagued him, and he was in particular distress the day they shot the wedding scene, where he has to pick up Grace Kelly. His personal life was a mess, too, as he was separated from his wife and his very public affair with Patricia Neal was coming to an end. No wonder he looks so haggard and weary.
10. ITS OSCAR-WINNING SONG ALMOST GOT CUT OUT.
High Noon was one of the first non-musicals to win the Academy Award for Best Song, the haunting "High Noon / Forsake Me Not, My Darling," sung by Tex Ritter over the opening credits. It tells the story of the movie, and it's a good song—almost too good, in fact. Producer Stanley Kramer loved it so much he nearly ruined it. He wrote in his memoirs: "I became so enamored of the song, I overused it, allowing it to cover some of Cooper's dramatic moments. [At the movie's first preview], the song was everywhere in the movie. By the time we got halfway through the showing, the audience was obviously restless. Before we were three-quarters of the way through, I knew why. At each repetition of the song, they started to laugh and then mockingly follow the lyrics." Everyone told Kramer to cut the song entirely after that disastrous screening, but he realized his mistake. The song was good; he had just used it too much. A new soundtrack fixed the problem.
11. THE PRODUCER CAST GRACE KELLY AFTER ONLY SEEING A PHOTOGRAPH OF HER, THEN LATER SAID SHE WAS MISCAST.
Kramer hired the 21-year-old beauty to play Will Kane's bride, Amy, without an audition or even a meeting. (He didn't tell the director, Zinnemann, this until after the fact.) When it was all over, Kramer had second thoughts: "She was miscast. She was just too young for Cooper. She didn't believe she did well in the role, and I didn't think so, either." Well whose fault was that, Stanley?
12. THERE WAS A WHOLE LOT OF FOOLIN' AROUND ON THE SET.
Though it only lasted four weeks, the shoot was full of romantic liaisons. Cooper and Kelly had an affair, which Cooper had to keep secret from his girlfriend Patricia Neal when she visited the set; Kelly and Zinnemann had an affair; and screenwriter Carl Foreman and supporting actress Katy Jurado had an affair. And those are just the ones we know about!